What Is a Sonata?
The word "sonata" comes from the Latin verb, sonare, "to sound." Originally, the word "sonata" was used as a general term for instrumental works, as opposed to a "contata", which was for voices. This has long since evolved and become something much more complex and interesting, which we will be exploring in this month's blog post.
A sonata is simply a piece, with 2-4 movements in related keys, each with their own unique style or characteristics. When that form is used for a solo instrument, like a piano, a cello, or a clarinet (or a solo instrument with piano accompaniment), the piece is called a sonata. When that same form is used for three instruments (i.e., a violin, a viola, and cello), it is now a trio. If you have four instruments playing together, you have a quartet, and so on. If you have a full orchestra playing in that form, you have a symphony.
Sonatas can have 2-4 movements. You may have noticed in music programs that movements are indicated with numbers and tempo markings instead of titles. You may have also noticed in performances that audiences do not clap between movements. This is because the piece is not over! The most common layout for a 3-movement sonata is:
A 4-movement sonata might have this layout (symphonies and string quartets most often use this):
When talking about the musical form, we are referring to the structure, or shape, within a piece or single movement. Sonata form is a three-part design of a movement, much like how a bridge has a strong, secure structure to hold it down on one side, a big sweeping bridge over a body of water, and another strong structure securing it to the other side. This is like Sonata Form: A-B-A, also known as the exposition, development, and recapitulation. it creates balance, stability, and contrast.
A Section. This takes place at the beginning of a piece, where the composer first states the themes of the movement. This is where the theme is exposed for the first time: the Exposition.
B Section. The development is where some of the themes from the A section are developed and explored. The development will usually move to a related key signature, and may feel unconventional or unstable in many respects.
A Section. Finally, we come back to a restatement of the A section. It might be presented slightly differently, or a little shorter. Overall, you'll recognize the same familiar themes from the beginning of the piece and might not notice any changes at all at first listen!
You can find sonata form in all sorts of music, not just a traditional sonata or Symphony. Many other forms exist in music, as well! Rondo, theme and variations, binary, and ternary, to name a few. Feel free to read about these on your own, or look for the topic in future blog posts.
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